WAR ON POVERTY: President Lyndon Johnson's 1964 visits to Martin County, Kentucky, as depicted in Sally Rubin and Ashley York's 2018 film "Hillbilly." National Archives/LBJ Presidential Library

The Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, in addition to being the longest-running all-documentary festival in North America, is also a uniquely Southern festival, drawing filmmakers from all over the world to tell their stories in Arkansas’ Ouachita Mountains. This year, the festival leaned into it, centering its programming around a “Southern Stories” category that showcased films from all over the length and breadth of the region.

Featuring stories from working-class Alabama, the South Carolina legislature, and everywhere in between, the Southern Stories docs didn’t present a unified picture of the South, and they sure didn’t offer any easy answers. Instead, they gave viewers glimpses at the many diverse Souths that make up the big one, striving to look with empathy and honesty at the communities whose complexity has long been overlooked.


Below, we review six of the category’s standouts.

“Hillbilly,” directed by Sally Rubin and Ashley York


Filmmaker Ashley York, a Kentucky expat living and working in LA, travels back home to her Trump-touting hometown the eve of the 2016 elections to investigate how public perceptions of Appalachia have shaped the region. The film is fast-paced and wide-ranging, jumping from scenes of York with her family to archival footage to interviews with Appalachian historians and activists. Throughout it all, the film maintains an academic sensibility, with heavyweight thinkers like Silas House and bell hooks breaking down issues like the aesthetics of poverty and the social construction of race at breakneck speed. The result is a project that reads almost as a primer for modern Appalachian thought, with a mile-long list of sources that contextualize and historicize York’s conflict more deeply than does the film itself.


"hillbilly" teaser from "hillbilly": a documentary film on Vimeo.

“Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” directed by RaMell Ross

The film follows young black Alabamans Daniel, Boosie and Quincy as they live and dream in their rural hometown. Most of the film’s editing carries an associative logic, with cuts working almost like line breaks in poetry, juxtaposing disparate images to create new meanings. One cut links together a close-up of sweat dripping onto a basketball court with a shot of raindrops hitting pavement; a long tracking shot layers sounds of a gameday crowd over rolling images of snow-white cotton fields. Some of these juxtapositions are more impactful than others, but they all work together to give the subjects’ joys and hardships the space to be felt to their fullest.


“Man on Fire,” directed by Joel Fendelman

Fendelman offers a grim look at the story of Charles Moore, a Methodist preacher who, in 2014, set himself on fire in a shopping center parking lot to protest the racism of Grand Saline, Texas, the sundown town where he lived and worked. After opening with an epigraph from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship — “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” — the film proceeds to ask more questions than it answers about Moore’s actions and motivations. Its short runtime (designed to fit into an episode slot of PBS’s “Independent Lens,” where it will premiere in December) works to the film’s advantage, leaving little room for either closure or oversimplification.

Man on Fire (2017) – Teaser from Joel Fendelman on Vimeo.

“While I Breathe, I Hope,” directed by Emily Harrold

Harrold hits the road with Bakari Sellers, the upstart young Democrat from deep-red South Carolina, during his 2014 run for Lieutenant Governor. But the film’s pacing and structure end up making it feel like a tired stump speech — themes are restated and overstated, and pacing that interrupts the narrative once too often for emotional flashbacks prevents the campaign from ever really gaining momentum onscreen. What energy the film does convey comes from Sellers himself and his impassioned commitment to civil justice, not from Harrold’s filmmaking.


“The Gospel of Eureka,” directed by Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri

Mosher and Palmieri tell the tale of two of Eureka Springs’ biggest productions: The Great Passion Play and Eureka Live Underground’s monthly drag shows. One miraculous sequence intercuts the two, moving seamlessly between the queens and the Passion Play’s Roman soldiers as they both apply eyeliner ahead of their big entrances. Equal parts campy and metaphysical, the film weaves ecstatic sounds and images into a fever dream meditation on the complexity of Arkansan identities. “The Gospel of Eureka” won HSDFF’s Best Southern Feature Documentary award.

“Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders,” directed by Dana Adam Shapiro

Shapiro excavates the behind-the-scenes story of Suzanne Mitchell, who served as the director of the Cowboys’ cheerleading program from 1976 to 1989 and transformed the squad into the global brand it is today. Interviews with Mitchell and the members of her original team are sharp and funny, but the film seems largely untroubled by the problems dredged up by the women’s remembrances. By the end of the film, references to eating disorders and sexual harassment are overshadowed by a patriotic sequence about the cheerleaders’ involvement in the USO, leaving questions about the project’s overall ethos.